Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
Several years after moving out of his Midtown apartment on Markham Street to return to New York City, actor Charles Sanchez was walking the streets of Manhattan with a video camera, his pal Tyne Firmin and a burning question: "Who is your favorite HIV+ character on television?" Responses ranged from "Ummm ... ?" to "Well, for God's sakes, I don't know of any HIV+ character on television!"
That was concrete justification for Firmin and Sanchez to bring to life their vision: a campy web series about an openly gay, HIV+ single man living in Manhattan, a show that had more in common with "Pink Flamingos" or "Guys and Dolls" than with "Gia" or "Philadelphia." Sanchez, an openly gay and HIV+ New Yorker, plays "Merce," a Hayley Mills-style protagonist with a glorious smile, a Barbara Eden twinkle in his eye and an abiding mantra that "life can be positive when you're positive!" Firmin is director.
I talked with Sanchez, who's now blogging for Huffington Post and developing his one-man show "Full Blown" ahead of the second season of "Merce," currently in its fundraising phase.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about HIV+ people?
I was diagnosed in 2003 with what they charmingly called "full-blown AIDS." Sexy. Now I like to say that I'm poz, but the newest P.C. term is "person living with HIV." My pal Shawn Decker calls us "pozitoids," and I love that, too!
I think the biggest misconception is that we're sick, diseased, dying, frail, weak, sad, tragic. Those beliefs still exist. As a culture, we're suffering from major PTSD from the AIDS crisis of the early '80s and '90s. The images of ravaged, sick and dying men and women were so vivid that they echo in our collective consciousness. When we hear HIV, those images come up, no matter how long ago they were. Even though science has made incredible advances in treatment and prevention, our emotions haven't made those advances.
You've been living as a healthy, positive person (or do we say poz now?) for years and years. How have the treatment and the possibilities for quality of life changed over the years, in your eyes?
It's a g.d. miracle! The first treatments were so toxic and scary, and the scientific community was just throwing spaghetti against the wall, hoping that something would stick. Now, the meds are truly amazing. There've been advances even in the almost 13 years since I was diagnosed. I used to take six pills twice per day, and now I only take one, once per day. And the side effects I used to have were ... um ... difficult to manage. I lovingly refer to one side effect as having poops-a-daisy! I never knew when I'd have to go RIGHT NOW. TMI? The med I'm taking has almost no side effect. It's unbelievable. I think, like anyone else, really, an HIV+ person's quality of life has to do with choosing optimism and hope and choosing joy. Now that we're no longer at death's door and we are not seen as a threat to society — not everywhere, because bigotry and ignorance still exist, and outdated laws, etc. — but, our lives can be as normal as we choose.
The first episode of "Merce" deals with HIV+ status as a sort of "elephant in the room," particularly when an otherwise dreamy first date takes a turn after Merce discloses his status. The stigma is still very much a social reality, even though so much has changed since the U.S. AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.
Absolutely! Stigma is the biggest problem, and the one I'm most fighting against. "Merce" was created as a direct reaction to seeing only tragic views of HIV in mainstream media, and I wanted to show something opposite, something that reflected my own attitudes and life. Some people still think of us as diseased pariahs, and until they see and believe something different, they can't change their opinion.
In the crowdfunding campaign to raise money for the second season of "Merce," you point out that you employ a racially diverse set of actors. You're Latino, and "Merce" has gotten some love from Estoy Bailando, a Spanish-language digital platform for LGBT culture. To what extent is speaking Spanish important in Latino gay communities in NYC?
I don't know that I can really speak to that, since I don't speak Spanish! I'm fifth-generation American, so when people ask about my heritage, I always say "George Washington," but I do think the best parts of me — my rhythm, my musicianship, my sense of humor, my love of language — all come from my family, my roots.
"Merce" is raunchy. In the first 8½ minutes, we've heard some throwback Amy Fisher jokes, we've been inside Freddy's, which just oozes a John Waters brand of trashy, and we've seen your ass. Have you heard from any folks who took offense at any of the humor?
I didn't know it was raunchy until the last day of shooting! One of the crew had mentioned it, and ... I mean, I knew I wrote a little blue, but raunchy? I mean, no one eats crap or anything! I certainly didn't want to offend anyone, but if so, so what? I've been offended by a lot of things in my life: self-righteous religious bigots, people killing people for being people, Idina Menzel's voice. Those things deeply offend me. My show is no more raunchy than, say, "Inside Amy Schumer." The bawdier comedy balances out the cheesiness of the musical comedy, and keeps it all modern. And my ass is darling.
I think it's fair to say that "Merce" is distinctive not only because its protagonist is HIV+, but because, as Bob Leahy (Positive Lite) said, "it's not sad and no one dies." The aesthetic in no way resembles the throngs of poignant, tragic treatments of HIV+ stories ubiquitous in the 1990s; "Merce" is straight-up "Singin' in the Rain." Were you and Tyne pretty clear on the vision from the outset?
Yes! We knew we wanted our show to be colorful, MGM-bright, wickedly funny, and still have something to say. We wanted our show to be unapologetic in its kookiness, full of love, and to be so much fun that people would forget that Merce has HIV. Which is exactly the point.
All eight episodes of the first season of "Merce" are available at mercetv.com, where there's also a link to a campaign to crowdfund the second season.